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Lawmakers seek to curb traffic light devices
By Elise Castelli, Globe Correspondent | December 2, 2004

Firefighters speeding down congested city streets these days can turn red traffic lights to green with the flick of a dashboard switch. But the same technology that gets emergency vehicles quickly through certain bottleneck intersections across the state may be falling into the hands of harried commuters who also want to breeze through traffic, lawmakers say.

The mess that would make out of rush hour isn't pretty, they say.

''It concerned me that a device like this in a frustrated motorist's hand could do a lot of damage," said Representative Timothy J. Toomey, a Cambridge Democrat who filed legislation this week to outlaw the devices for everyone except public safety officials. ''There is no reason for any member of the public for having a device like this. They should only be available to public safety officials who are trained to use them."

Under Toomey's legislation, drivers caught in possession of the light-switching transmitters, which use a special frequency to interrupt traffic signals, could face fines between $100 and $1,000 and 30- to 90-day suspension of their driver's license.

The devices have been in use for nearly three decades, but in recent years their popularity has climbed. A 2002 study by the US Department of Transportation found that 381 agencies nationwide had equipped 26,800 intersections with electronic sensors that turn traffic lights green when triggered by a beam of infrared light. The beam is transmitted by devices similar to television remote controls.

Officials at the St. Paul-based 3M Co., a major manufacturer of the devices, said the number has nearly doubled, with about 50,000 intersections equipped in about 1,000 cities.

''When we go out our door, we hit the transmitter, and the unit turns the light 1,000 feet in front of us green, and we have a free line of traffic," said Holyoke Fire Chief David LaFond, who is president of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts.

LaFond and other emergency services officials across the state say the devices have helped reduce accidents at intersections when emergency vehicles try to get through.

''As soon as the device turns the light, it allows people to get out of the way," said Michael Howard, fire chief in Norwood, where the devices have been in use for 20 years. ''You don't hear about the near misses or of clipping cars when getting through the area."

As official use has grown, however, Internet sites have cropped up that appear to market the devices to traffic-weary commuters, offering the promise of an ability to change traffic lights without being detected.

''No visible light is emitted!" exclaims one site that calls its light changer an undetectable fix to traffic problems. ''You will completely blend in with all other traffic, yet be able to safely control intersections!"

Selling for as little as $300, the transmitters being touted on the Internet have begun to alarm fire officials like LaFond.

''People would use these for all the wrong reasons," he said. ''There is a tendency for individuals to speed, knowing full well the lights would be green. It would be like the Autobahn [in Germany].

''It has come up to the board of directors that they are available on the Internet, and I am glad to hear someone is filing something to keep this out of the public hands," he added.

If the bill passes during the next legislative session, Massachusetts would be the 16th state to enact such a law.

No legal action can be taken against a driver changing traffic light cycles with a transmitter. ''There are no penalties for the use, because there is no law against it," said State Police spokeswoman Danielle Pires. The State Police would be responsible for disposing of confiscated devices if the bill becomes law.

A similar bill was filed in 2003 by House minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr., of North Reading, but the bill was stuck in committee. ''We were anticipating the problem of people not respecting what the devices are for," said Jones, who refiled his version of the bill yesterday. ''I will work with any member of either party to advance any legislation I am supportive of."
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